Meet the next senator from South Dakota

Why is this man smiling? He’s looking into the future and seeing suddenly smooth water and clear skies all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It wasn’t long ago that South Dakota Democrats were tingling with excitement over the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

Sure, Tim Johnson, who’s been the rock of the party these past few years and a dependable leader for decades, is retiring. But the Democrats had his son, Brendan, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, as a possible candidate. They also had Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman. Even Mike Huether, the accomplished mayor of Sioux Falls, was talked about as a potential Senate hopeful. Any one of those three would have been a viable, respected challenger to the presumed Republican candidate, Mike Rounds.

And then there were hints of trouble on the Republican side. Some thought U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who ousted Herseth Sandlin, might challenge Rounds in a primary.

Things were looking pretty darn hopeful for the Democrats.

Then, suddenly, over a span of weeks, Herseth Sandlin announced she won’t run. Brendan Johnson faded away, apparently not wanting to jump into politics at this precise moment. Huether, as far as I know, hasn’t ruled it out but hasn’t expressed a lot of interest, either.

Meanwhile, Rick Weiland jumped into the race on the Democratic side. (Remember him? He’s that guy who lost that race against somebody that one year way back.) And yesterday, Kristi Noem announced she will run for re-election to the House rather than challenge Rounds in a Senate primary.

What does it all mean? It means that as I write this, Mike Rounds’ election to the U.S. Senate is as close to a foregone conclusion as conclusions get in politics. And if that happens, it means South Dakota Democrats, who’ve long claimed congressional officeholders as at least a shred of something resembling political success in the state, won’t have even that anymore.

The Democrats desperately need somebody to ride onto the field of battle and rally the troops. Otherwise, they’re looking at a situation beginning in January 2015 in which they might be completely locked out of statewide and congressional offices, and still have an embarrassingly small number of legislative seats. It’ll be as close to literal one-party rule as South Dakota’s ever had.

Is there anybody out there who can save the Democrats? Anybody?





2014: The intrigue, the feud and the damage done

Brendan Johnson in Rapid City, June 2011

U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Brendan Johnson. Is he really not running for Senate?

As Tom Daschle and Harry Reid take up arms against each other over South Dakota’s US Senate seat, let’s all take a breath and remember two things:

  1. Brendan Johnson has not yet said that Brendan Johnson is not running for the U.S. Senate in 2014. (Make that a double – neither has Tim Johnson.) Some surrogates have said he isn’t running, and those surrogates do have some credibility – namely quasi-declared candidate Rick Weiland and Draft Brendan organizer/co-conspirator Ryan Casey. Still and all, no word from the man himself.
  2. While Rick Weiland has said he is running, he has yet to formally organize and announce a campaign. Which leaves the skeptics among us – me included – to withhold judgment on a would-be Weiland candidacy until the car has fully taken the track. I’ve been told this vehicle is an infant, so it’ll be 0 to 100 in record time if it comes true.

Of Weiland, Senate majority leader Reid tells Politico: “He’s not my choice.” Not words one can easily take back.

After reading the Politico story linked above, one must also wonder whether Weiland’s unexpected entrance into the 2014 mix might have more to do with Tom Daschle wanting to show Harry Reid that he can set the South Dakota table with more flair and impact than can any DC politi-hack. But, knowing what I know about Daschle, I take him at his word when he tells Politico:

“They have to make their decisions, and I have to make mine,” Daschle said. “I don’t take it personally, and they shouldn’t, either.”

A big reason for Daschle’s political success was his ability, perhaps an innate South Dakota-ness, to not let his ego call the shots. A methodical accommodation of others’ interests and matter-of-fact dismantling of temper-tantrums have been Daschle’s hallmark. Not that he does not have his own temper, but he is disciplined in its control.

Which makes him going all-in with Weiland all the more curious. Did he ever support SHS or Brendan for the nomination? Just what the what is going on?

So where does the Tom v. Harry battle royal leave South Dakota for 2014?

  • Stephanie Herseth Sandlin says she’s out. I don’t look for that to change, but all things are possible. Politico makes it sound as though Reid & Co. have not given up. (So you’re saying I have a chance!) (For all of Daschle’s skill, I don’t buy the Politico take that his endorsement of Weiland kept her out. I think she would have enjoyed the challenge.)
  • Most folks believe Brendan is out. I have not yet joined their ranks. If he is out, what changed in such a hurry? How do Tim and Barbara Johnson feel about how this is shaking out? What does this bizzaro turn of events do to a future Brendan candidacy?
  • Will Rick Weiland truly be the Dems’ standard-bearer in 2014? If so, he had better be already drafting those position papers, lining up staff and raising money. It’s a long, bumpy road to the US Senate, and Rick Weiland apparently won’t find the Welcome Wagon waiting for him if he completes the journey.
  • If you’re a rank-and-file (yet passionate) Democrat in South Dakota, you probably didn’t think things could get much worse. Remember, Stephanie might run for governor down the road. Tom Daschle and Harry Reid don’t give a hoot about that job.


Smart move, Stephanie

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin

If you’re a reader of The Daily Republic, you may know I wrote a column recently in which I advised Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to either forgo next year’s Senate race in order to fulfill her expressed desire to spend more time with her family, or to quit talking about that desire so much if she had already decided to run.

Looks like I timed my column well. News broke this morning that she’s not running, after she posted an announcement on her Facebook page.

I’m under no illusions that my column had any impact whatsoever on her decision, but I do think, partly for the reasons I outlined in the column, that she made a smart move.

You can’t go all over the state telling everybody how important your family time is — as Herseth Sandlin had been doing lately — and then jump into the first big-time political race that comes along. It would look hypocritical.

The next time an opportunity arises, Herseth Sandlin’s young son will probably be in grade school, and she’ll be more able to make the sacrifice of time it takes to run for and win a statewide elected office.

Furthermore, I think the political winds are against her right now. When the regular voter thinks of Herseth Sandlin, I think there’s still a feeling of, “didn’t we just vote her out a couple of years ago?” It’s too soon for a full-scale comeback. Besides, I don’t see her beating Mike Rounds in a Senate race or Kristi Noem in a House race, and another defeat right now could be the end of Herseth Sandlin’s political career.

There will be more opportunities for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Nobody is emerging so far from the Democratic Party in South Dakota to challenge her as (in the absence of Tim Johnson) the party’s biggest star. She will continue to be the first name on Democratic lists for every statewide office that opens up. Of course, Brendan Johnson is out there on the horizon, but it’s looking more like he, too, might pass on the 2014 cycle. And we all know there’s plenty of room on the perilously thin South Dakota Democratic bench for two.

With a few more years living and working in South Dakota under her belt, Herseth Sandlin will be an even better candidate. One of the knocks on her was always that she left the state as a young woman for college and law school and appeared to rarely come back. By the next time she runs for something, with all the time she’ll have spent living, working and raising her child in South Dakota, that criticism will have been obliterated. I can honestly say I’d be more inclined to vote for her knowing that she’s shared my experience of being a working parent in South Dakota. And she’ll be better able to relate to voters, which is a scary prospect for Republicans, given she’s already shown she can win statewide elections in a Republican-dominated state.

So today I say congratulations to Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for making a good decision for sound reasons. Enjoy your family and your life for a while. I have a feeling the Democrats will still need you a few years down the road, and you’ll be able come back to politics when you’re truly ready.

Don’t underestimate the Zachary factor

It seems that all eyes are now on Stephanie Herseth Sandlin – will she or won’t she run for the US Senate in 2014?

NSU’s Jon Schaff tells the Argus it appears she’s already made up her mind to run, and maybe she has. Only she and a few trusted advisers know for sure.

But her quote about considering her son’s well-being sticks in my mind, largely because our sons are just weeks apart in age.

“I’m loving my family life in Sioux Falls, and the more time I get to spend with family and friends in South Dakota — and how important that is for Zachary.”

And so. So. So. So. (Quoting Dr. Suess – can’t help it.) To a mother, the best interests of the children are such a powerful force. My own interests don’t just take a back seat to my sons – I have two, ages 3 and 4. They ride on top of the car, and not in one of those nice hard-top carriers. They are strapped on by bungie cords and baling wire, often casualties to the break-neck pace of pre-school and swimming lessons and play dates and bedtime stories and time in the kitchen and potty training and on and on. (Those of you who haven’t helped a 3-year-old crack an egg cannot claim to truly have tested your patience.)

Lest you think this a lament of the working mom in today’s society, it is not. It is an acknowledgement of reality. And the reality is SHS is the mother of a young son, Zachary. And it seems true that being a mother is different than being a father, still, at least when it comes to career choices.

Some say Zachary’s arrival in the months leading up to her 2010 re-election campaign put a drag on her campaign activities. Perhaps.

She now says he and husband Max and “family life” are a huge consideration in her thoughts about 2014. We ought to take her at her word.

Nathan Daschle once told me that he outright rejected a political career because he witnessed first-hand the sacrifices his dad, Tom, had made. And no doubt that the entire family had made.

I have no doubt that, all things being equal, SHS would love to be in the mix on Capitol Hill as a senator. I also know that all things are not equal.

One giggle and grin from a 4-year-old melts the Capitol dome like water on birthday cake frosting. And that’s as it should be.

If she decides to run, it will be because her friends who are both moms and members of Congress – New York’s Kirsten Gillebrand and Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz – have convinced her it’s possible to be both a good mom and a good senator.

If she doesn’t run, it’s because she decided she couldn’t do both. Not right now.

I, for one, do not envy her decision.

My David, age 4

My Jerryd, age 3

Checking out the R and D rosters

Let’s say it’s a ballgame. The first pitch has yet to be thrown in the 2014 game, but how about setting the lineups?

The Republican team is easy to write down. The Democrats? Not so much, and the two biggest names both want to bat third and play center field.

Let’s run down the lineups.


R: Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who it turns out is not serving the third term of the Rounds administration, and loves to joke about running out of paper. He’s a caution.

D: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin? Bernie Hunhoff, who tried for it in 1998, and now says he doesn’t have the dough, and is not interested? Wild, wild guess sure to be wrong, but how interesting would it be — Tom Daschle. Even wilder? Sioux Falls native, TV star and party guy Pat O’Brien.

Lt. Governor:

R: LG Matt “The Nurse/Lawyer” Michels, unless some up-and-comer shoves him aside.

D: Um, well, let’s say Nancy Turbak Berry, or Jeff Barth. Would you believe Matt “Corn Dog” Varilek? Hell, in 2010 the Dems ran a Republican for this office.


R: Former Gov./Insurance Pitcher Mike Rounds. Maybe Rep. Kristi Noem, who declines to decline every chance she gets and had time to complete her long-lost college education during her first term in office.

D: Here they have a name or two, in either SHS, Zach’s mom and a recovering lobbyist who is pondering a comeback, or U.S. Attorney/Son in Waiting Brendan Johnson.


R: Noem, or maybe Dusty “PUC? Just kidding.” Johnson or some other eager young GOPer if she tries for the Senate.

D: Whoever loses the coin toss between SHS and Brendan? Bernie? Another try by Varilek?

Constitutional offices:

R: They hold all the offices, so it’s likely the same starters as 2010. Secretary of State Jason Gant may well face a challenge by another Republican, who can assuredly count on Stan Adelstein for a campaign donation or two.

D: If they nominate Ron Volesky for attorney general again we’ll ask for a Black Sox investigation.